Father Mapple (Gregory Peck) on Jonah

54-17-01/11

Any Gregory Peck fans? Some people know that Gregory Peck played Captain Ahab in a 1956 movie version of Moby Dick by Herman Melville. A few people maybe know that Gregory Peck made a cameo appearance in the 1998 tv-miniseries version. Which character did he portray then? Father Mapple. Who gave a stirring sermon on…? The prophet Jonah! Here’s a summary.

Jonah began by disobeying God’s direct order. Go to Nineveh. Go east. Jonah sailed west. Jonah hated the Ninevites. He did not want the Ninevites to repent and find salvation. He wanted them to burn.

Jonah by Michelangelo
Jonah by Michelangelo

So Jonah disobeyed, simply because he did not want to fulfill the Lord’s command.

As Father Mapple, Gregory Peck puts it eloquently, “To obey God, we must disobey ourselves; it is in this disobeying of ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

The Lord turned the tables on Jonah. The fugitive has to jump overboard to keep the ship on which he sails from sinking in a storm. Then a whale swallows Jonah.

From the belly of the whale, Jonah finally prays. He begins by acknowledging that God has justly punished him. Lord, this is miserable, languishing in the belly of a whale. But I deserve it.

This, Father Mapple points out, is repentance of the deepest and most faithful kind. I have sinned, Lord, and You have justly punished. Praise you! Jonah loves God enough to praise Him for making life miserable for him.

Father Mapple then goes on to emphasize how the Lord liberated the penitent Jonah and Jonah embraced his duty. Jonah went to seek the repentance of the Ninevites by telling them the unpleasant truth. As Father Mapple has it: Truth rather than pleasure. Truth rather than comfort. Truth rather than honor in this world.

Then, as we read at Holy Mass today, the Ninevites repented with stunning thoroughness. They repented instantly and completely. Jonah preached, and the people—from low to high—listened and renounced their wicked ways.

How can we explain such an amazing conversion of the entire city?

I think Father Mapple’s point about the profound sincerity of Jonah’s faith—his own humility in acknowledging the justice of God’s punishments—this is the explanation. The Ninevites saw in Jonah a precursor of St. Paul: a man who came not with charisma, not with wisdom, not with eloquence, but with the absolute conviction that God is true to His word. And that our job is to disobey ourselves so we can obey Him.

Small Jonah, Big God

Today at Mass we read the conclusion of the prophet Jonah’s adventure. The Lord had ordered him to go to Nineveh, to call the huge city to repentance.

But like his Hebrew brethren, Jonah hated the Ninevites, because they were godless pagans. So Jonah did not go east as commanded, but booked passage on a boat heading in the opposite direction.

God, however, holds the cards. A storm arose. The other men on the boat feared for their lives. They discovered that Jonah was to blame. Begging the Lord’s mercy, the sailors cast Jonah overboard in order to save the ship. A whale swallowed him, and then spat him back up on dry land.

Jonah begrudgingly went to Nineveh and preached repentance. The prophet had been angry about the whole business from the beginning, but what happened next made him even angrier than he was before: The people of Nineveh promptly repented and begged God for mercy. Even the cows were dressed in sackcloth to show the Lord that the whole city, from the king on down—everyone was sorry for their sins.

So God spared the Ninevites, and did not carry out his wrathful punishment.

This really burned Jonah to the quick.

So: Jonah, even though he was a consecrated prophet of God, carried on like an unreasonable, petulant, demanding child from beginning to end. Somehow the Lord managed to turn his mission into an enormous success anyway.

Often, when the disciples would ask the Lord Jesus a question, He would not give an immediate, straightforward answer. This was because many of the disciples’ questions proceeded from their obtuse incomprehension of basic facts.

But when they said, “Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus was pleased. They were acknowledging that they did not know about the most important thing. What could be more important than prayer? And yet, left to our own devices, we will make a mess of it.

Lord, teach us to pray. Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Forgive us our petulant, unreasonable, self-indulgent sins. Spare us from the really difficult trials, because we are too weak to handle them. We can barely handle easy trials.

We trust that you know how to make the big things work out. Please just keep us fed, and we will do our best with the little things.